top of page

3D printed fine art gets a high-end look

Host 1: Adelie, what images come to you when I say “3D Printing”?

Host 2: Well, little colorful plastic figurines of dinosaurs and Darth Vader, I guess? Host 1: But as the technology has become more advanced, artists all over the world have embraced 3D printing as a new medium. Hanna Klingberg reports that 3D printers are becoming a new medium to create fine arts.

I’m standing next to Canadian sculptor James Stewart. He’s displaying his first printed piece at this year’s 3D Printshow in Chelsea.

STEWART: I have a 3D printed, hand-sculpted colored print sculpture. (0:07)

The sculpture, called “Jeri”. It’s a 16” model of a Brazilian dancer crouching in a low squat; his long outstretched arms resting on his knees. Shiny and white, with brightly colored images on the surface, the sculpture looks just like painted porcelain.

STEWART: What’s great about this piece right now is it has that not-printed look, which is very important for the future of the medium if you want to maintain a higher end look. (0:10)

From afar the images on the surface look like tattoos, but up close you realize that it’s a collage of famous photographs and drawings. There’s a piece of a Monet on the back and a little Mickey Mouse drawing right next to it. Stewart says the printed sculpture allows him to say more than he could with his traditional bronze work.

STEWART: I want to raise awareness of the human condition and just generally our views on what art is, our influences. And I tried to put those onto the surface. (0:13)

Today’s professional 3D printers can handle over 50 different materials, including metals, even gold. The sculpture “Jeri” is printed in what’s called sandstone. That’is the only material that lets you print images in full color on the surface.

Many artists have their sculptures printed in the Advanced Media Lab at New York University.

FORD: You can kind of see that – let me just lift the lid really quickly – this is the bed where the prints get set.

Dhemerae Ford shows me how sandstone printing works.

So you can see that’s it’s a really fine grain powder that gets layered on top of each other with a binder in between each layer, which is essentially the same as glue. It’s basically Elmer’s glue with ink in it. (0:21)

The printer has just finished a piece by the artist Josh Kline for his new exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Ford picks up what looks like a flat, dusty brick from the print bed.

FORD: And you can kind of see that when we dig these out of the printer, they’re all covered in a thin film of powder that we then have to clean off the parts. They then are treated with post-processing that makes the colors come out and makes the parts stronger. (0:18)

James Stewart’s sculpture “Jeri” took nearly 24 hours and cost $5000 to print. But first, Stewart spent two months making a clay model of sculpture, just like he would with a traditional bronze piece. Though he didn’t have to.

STEWART: You can do the same thing through a computer, frankly, a beautiful sculpture on a computer is still a beautiful sculpture. But that master’s touch, when you use your fingerprints, I think it retains a certain energy. (0:11)

He then scanned the clay model using a high resolution 3D scanner, before adding the artwork on the surface. He points to a area around “Jeri”’s shoulder.

STEWART: There’s fingerprints all over this guy, everything is made with a fingerprint. I don’t use tools. (0:04)

After scanning the model, Stewart had to digitally cut the sculpture into pieces. Because, he says, the main problem with 3D printers is size.

STEWART: If you want to make something 16” high, you can’t. The biggest printer is about 10” high. So my sculpture, being 16”, I had to break it into pieces and sort of fuse it together. (0:15)

But that was last year when Jeri was printed. Since then, a lot has happened with the technology. Now there are printers that can handle pieces up to 40” tall.

Stewart says there’s another issue with 3D printed fine art. And that’s replicating the work. Unlike traditional sculpting, where the mold deteriorates with use, 3D printing allows Stewart to make as many identical copies as he wants. But as with his other fine art, he will limit the number.

STEWART: 9:18 I’m just gonna do nine of them and when that’s done I’ll destroy the files and we’re done. (0:08)

So far he’s only printed the one. And he hasn’t sold it yet.

Stefania Bortolami is the owner of Bortolami Gallery in Chelsea. She has sold several works of art with 3D printed pieces. She says just three years ago it was seen as a novelty technique

BORTOLAMI: It was a thing in of itself. It was like wow, you used 3D printing! (0:06)

But now, Bortolami says 3D printing has become another medium, one we’ll see more of in fine art.

BORTOLAMI: We’re just the beginning, things will become more and more sophisticated, using different kinds of materials in order to create the 3D print, and you know, it’s already pretty normal, but it will become more and more the norm. (0:17)

And with the technology developing at full-speed, that day might come sooner than we think. Hanna Klingberg, Columbia Radio News.

BACK ANNOUCE: And you can see images of James Stewart’s sculpture on our website at


bottom of page